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D. W. Griffith and the Development of American Narrative Cinema

1. Origins to 1928

2. Origins to 1914

  1. Charlie Keil

Published Online: 13 NOV 2011

DOI: 10.1002/9780470671153.wbhaf005

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

How to Cite

Keil, C. 2011. D. W. Griffith and the Development of American Narrative Cinema. The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film. 1:2:5.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 13 NOV 2011


The first and arguably most significant phase of D. W. Griffith's film directing career began in 1908 and ended in 1913, the years when he was the most important filmmaker at the preeminent film production company in America. That Griffith's tenure at Biograph coincides almost to the year with the tumultuous period of industrial and formal change typically referred to as “the transitional era” is but one of many reasons that historians view the director as central to the period's developments. But what role did Griffith ultimately play in the American film industry's adoption of a storytelling approach that brought together the resources of performance and decor, framing and composition, and, most crucially, editing, in producing thousands of one-reel narratives for a growing audience of moviegoers in the post-nickelodeon marketplace? Some have questioned the tendency to attribute the period's change in narrational strategies to the singular achievements of Griffith, no matter how impressive those achievements may have been. Opposition to understanding Griffith as a key transitional figure derives less from any hesitation about his talent and more from the distinctiveness of his output. The debate focuses on whether we should label Griffith as a representative director of this period: While he may be the era's most celebrated filmmaker, does he actually define that era? Close attention to the formal qualities of Griffith's Biograph films can certainly help us to assess more precisely his contribution to the developing norms of the transitional period; but beyond such study, we also need to consider his films in relation to those of his competitors. Only then can we establish with any certainty whether Griffith stood apart from the rest of the industry during the Biograph years, or whether he merely realized the aims of the era more proficiently, albeit also more idiosyncratically, than any other filmmaker at this time.


  • griffith;
  • narration;
  • transitional cinema;
  • style;
  • director;
  • american film industry